Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker

Games in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise are no strangers to doom and despair. They strip the hope and happiness from their characters to varying degrees, but ultimately engross the player in the tumultuous psychological challenges that arise during such trying times. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is no exception, but it takes a slightly different approach than its predecessor. It still deals with some very heavy themes and moral dilemmas, but it’s the subtle changes this time around that make all the difference.

Just as in its predecessor, Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker begins with disaster befalling Tokyo. The source is unknown, but with demons crawling out of people’s phones and eerie death videos depicting the demise of your closest friends arriving from a mysterious website, it’s hardly your only problem. Where this enhanced sequel differs from the series’ first installment, however, is the scope of the catastrophe. While it may begin in Japan’s glistening metropolis it quickly expands throughout the country, and that’s only the beginning.

The first Devil Survivor took place within a locked-down Tokyo, penning its characters in with other survivors and a near endless flow of flesh-hungry demons. Its story emphasized the fragile constructs of society, and how extinguishing a person’s hope for survival can quickly lead to desperation and madness. Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker dabbles in those themes too, but by opening up its setting to include all of Japan it uses the devastation of the world to communicate its hopelessness, and makes the characters not only survivors but also the only souls capable of saving what’s left of their home. It’s both terrifying and empowering at once, and makes for a captivating premise.

The comparatively lighthearted nature of Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is frequently apparent, and even its icy blue aesthetic clashes with the fiery red of its predecessor. These differences are also found in the game’s music, which holds on to the thrashing guitars of the first Devil Survivor but dulls them with some tasteful instrumental pieces and uplifting electronic tracks. Everything about Devil Survivor 2‘s presentation feels more polished than when the series debuted back in 2009, but Record Breaker unfortunately fails to utilize the 3DS’s most touted feature – its stereoscopic 3D. It’s a problem that plagued the series’ first 3DS remaster as well, and it’s disappointing that Atlus couldn’t find more use for such a unique feature than merely adding occasional and meaningless depth to a menu screen.

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The characters this time around are all compelling, interesting and likeable in their own right, and for the most part I preferred them over the first Devil Survivor’s cast. It’s crucial that you enjoy these personalities, too, because much of the game is focused on their individual struggles with the tragedy and death surrounding them. It feels like a visual novel, and a good one at that, but the voice acting added to Record Breaker completely enhances the connection and impact experienced by the player. Devil Survivor 2‘s writing was already strong, but powerful performances across the board elevate it to something greater, and almost single-handedly warrant a replay by anyone who enjoyed it the first time around.

Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker‘s battles remain unchanged, however. Players move each of their characters around a gridded area, fighting enemy demons along the way with their own hellish companions while seeking to complete the stage’s particular goal. Combat is turn-based, but each member of your squad can earn an extra turn by targeting the elemental weakness of an enemy. It’s fairly stock-standard for the Shin Megami Tensei series, but while the enemies are well drawn and designed it feels a little underwhelming to be faced with nothing but static portraits.

The battlefields are stunning, impeccably pixelized realizations of urban environments that masterfully capture the features of their real-life counterparts. However, those same features can sometimes obstruct your view of the battlefield, and with no option to reposition the camera success can occasionally come down to luck instead of strategy. It’s rarely an issue, but Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is so punishing it’s maddeningly frustrating to have to replay an entire stage because you couldn’t see what was going on.

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Anyone who’s played a Shin Megami Tensei title will tell you they’re anything by easy, and Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is no different. Even on its easiest difficulty it can be crushingly difficult, and anyone averse to grinding may want to think twice before submitting themselves to the trials of the lengthy campaign. The game at least gives you the option to grind, supplying “Free Battles” liberally throughout the journey and offering an EXP-heavy DLC map to help beef up your characters, but it can feel daunting to be constantly faced with a park full of demons far out of your league. Players that thrive in that environment will absolutely revel in the challenge, but it’s unfortunate that Atlus couldn’t provide a truly “easy” difficulty setting for players who simply want to experience Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker’s captivating story.

Outside of battle, your days move in 30-minute increments. It’s up to you how you spend each slice of time, usually choosing from a selection of locations and characters to interact with, but ultimately the goal is to sleuth around for the details necessary to avert the events of each death video and gain a better understanding of the cause of the world’s apocalyptic state. You have to listen well and make the right choices, because if you’re even half an hour late you can lose a character forever, missing their interactions with other team members and entire portions of their complicated personalities. Your choices also affect which ending you earn, so there’s perpetual pressure to do and say the right things at all times. The stakes are high, but luckily Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker streamlines the experience substantially in comparison to its predecessor. It funnels you towards meaningful choices, assuring you waste less time and lend a hand in maintaining the game’s well-measured pace.

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Of course there’s never time to talk to everyone, so much like its cousins in the Persona series Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker forces you to choose who you spend your time with. It’s a mechanic that returns from the first Devil Survivor, but Devil Survivor 2 adds on the new and tangible Fate System, mirroring the Persona series’ Social Links and granting players perks and abilities that come in mighty handy during a scrap. Those boosts are hardly the only difference makers, though. Winning demons through online auctions, fusing them with other demons, and creating magnificently powerful creatures is the standard recipe for success, a suite of mechanics longtime Shin Megami Tensei fans will be more than familiar with. As always, it’s incredibly rewarding to stumble upon a beautiful combination of two otherwise useless monstrosities, and challenging yourself to complete the Demon Compendium is sure to tack on tens of hours to the already lengthy campaign.

In fact, Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker features a brand new epilogue called the Triangulum Arc nearly doubling the content of the original package. It takes place after the original events of Devil Survivor 2, and features new challenges along with a brand new score from Persona series hero Shoji Meguro. It’s Record Breaker‘s defining element, but it’s not quite worth the price of admission on its own for anyone who’s already played the original campaign. Still, it’s accessible from the moment you boot up the game, so if that’s why you want Record Breaker then fret not: it’s a great addition.

Fate (4)

Closing Comments:

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker is an enormous package. It not only boasts Devil Survivor 2‘s original campaign, enhanced with fantastic voice acting, but also an entirely new complementary epilogue. Despite this, however, most of Devil Survivor 2 remains unchanged in this enhanced port, and those who played the original may not find enough reasons to double dip with Record Breaker. Make no mistake — it’s a compelling, challenging and rewarding JRPG in it’s own right, but with little fresh content and some lingering accessibility issues, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 might not be the title everyone was hoping it to be.